By Lela Nargi
Dead center amid Central Park’s wide, grassy fields and narrow winding footpaths and thick stands of trees perks an unlikely structure. Almost as old as the Park itself, if you were to stumble upon it in gloomy light, you might look on its thick, dark beams and gingerbread details and wonder if you had somehow strayed into Hansel and Gretel’s forest. It would be an apt concern for, although the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre offers no threat, for almost 70 years it’s been presenting fairy tales to children both on and off its small stage.
A refugee of the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia—an example from Sweden of a country schoolhouse—Central Park mastermind Frederick Law Olmsted himself hauled it over to be a nature study center, and it’s since acted as a storehouse, a bathroom, and, during World War II, a civic defense station. The puppets moved in in 1947, during a golden era of the art: Howdy Doody was on TV and Bil Baird, who orchestrated that jaw-dropping pastoral scene in The Sound of Music, was revered. But for children, the allure of marionettes has never really dwindled. “Kids are intrigued by the moving image,” says the theater’s current creative director, Bruce Cannon. “Seeing these little dolls come to life, with the movement and the environment that’s created for them, it’s a magic I can’t quite put my finger on.”
What he can put his finger on—all 10 of his fingers, in fact—is an ongoing cast of marionettes: Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, Peter Pan and Puss ‘N Boots, princesses and emperors, pigs, turtles, bears, fairies, dragons, rabbits, giant cupcakes, for dozens of performances during the season. They’re all made in-house by resident head marionette builder, Doug Strich, out of wood, papier maché, and foam. The two men, along with the theater’s five other full-time puppeteers, represent a slice of creative New York that can too often feel obsolete. Cannon, a musical theater buff in high school in Harlem during the 1970s, apprenticed at the theater after a year of college—and never left. Strich had a similar enthusiasm for stage and static arts, and apprenticed, too, for a puppet master in his hometown in New Jersey before mounting marionette productions for his theater degree from the University of South Dakota. Thanks to them, and fiscal support from the City Parks Foundation, a vibrant piece of the old city continues to thrive.
Currently in rotation on the stage is “The Three Bears Holiday Bash,” a musical tribute to the classic tale that gives nods to Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. “We do traditional stories with updates for today’s audiences,” says Cannon before proudly whipping out a review in The New York Times that compared the show to a Saturday Night Live skit. “And we’re one of the few puppet companies left that do traditional marionetting. Most of them only deal with hand puppets these days.” In the warm months, as an homage to the theater’s history as a touring company, the puppeteers take their show on the road, out to playgrounds and other parks. Those productions are free. But even the ones staged in-house would be a bargain at twice the price: $7 for children, $10 for adults.
Strich, though, sees more value in the theater’s productions than just an hour’s worth of cheap entertainment. “There’s a lot of magic in this art form,” he says. “Kids are forced to use their imaginations as they watch, and to forget the world. Their minds are so open to pretend and play—it’s all so much easier for them to access than adults.” And maybe, just maybe he and Cannon are inspiring the next generation of puppeteers when, after each show, they step out from behind the curtain to introduce the audience to some of the fine points of making marionettes come alice points of . Says Cannon, “That’s when we show them how the magic works.”
Photographs by Roy Beeson